5 Bounce Back NFL Teams
A year after the Carolina Panthers had a losing season (2014; 7-8-1) they reached the Super Bowl off the back of a winning 15-1 record. They subsequently lost 24-10 to the Denver Broncos in that game; a year later they were back to a losing record again.
Success is often transient in the NFL (not all teams are the New England Patriots) hence teams need to maximize the good seasons and claim a winning record when they have a chance. There are teams every year who will banish memories of a losing season and see an upturn in their fortunes. I’m going to take a look at teams who WILL have a winning season this season; a year after they struggled.
Los Angeles Chargers
2016 Record: 5-11
I’ve written the introduction to the Chargers section three times now. The reason: the ongoing injury curse suffered by the team. I was as confident as anyone else about the newly relocated Bolts, and I still believe that a winning season is their 2017 destiny. Yet I was slightly less positive when the news came out about Mike Williams. A first round pick in this spring’s draft entering the season injured isn’t a good thing, but he was in the position where the Chargers enjoy more depth than most. Then came the news about Forrest Lamp, their second round pick, lost for the season: this time a more significant blow.
I’m not the first person to suggest the Chargers making a run for the playoffs, and despite their continuing misfortune, this is exactly what I think they’ll do. They face the challenge of being in the toughest division in the league. It’s difficult to compete against the ever-successful Chiefs, the superb Broncos defense and the Oakland ‘hype-train’ Raiders. The Chargers, however, have the experience, talent and schedule to be competitive throughout the season. They need one slice of luck, no more injuries to key players.
An explosive offense
The Chargers have a franchise quarterback in Philip Rivers, and therefore strength at the most important position in football. Rivers is throwing to one of the deepest wide receiver corps in the league. Keenan Allen is a top WR1 when fit and healthy (look at his 2015 8-game production), and Travis Benjamin has the pace to unsettle any defense. Tyrell Williams had a breakout season in 2016 with 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns. Even if Mike Williams is ruled out for the year they still have a player like Dontrelle Inman. At fourth (or fifth if Williams is healthy) position on the depth chart, the Chargers have a player, in Inman, who achieved 810 yards last year.
We can’t forget the other targets Rivers has at his disposal. At 37 years old Antonio Gates is a true veteran of the league, yet his production for a tight end is still superb. In 2016 he managed 548 yards, snagging seven touchdowns. Alongside Gates, the Chargers have one of the most exciting young tight ends in the game, Hunter Henry. In his rookie year, Henry eclipsed his veteran colleague’s touchdown total with eight while collecting 478 receiving yards.
The Chargers are a significant threat through the air and are likely to favor passing as their focus of attack. They support this passing game with a solid running back, who had one of the most productive seasons for the position in 2016. Melvin Gordon averaged 76.7 yards per game and would have easily run for more than 1,000 yards had his season not been ended by injury.
The supporting offensive cast
Focussing on the Chargers’ skill players is focussing on their strength. Skill players alone can’t deliver a great season, the rest of the squad also needs to be effective.
For the previous ten seasons, PFF has graded the Chargers offensive line below average. Now I’ll let you into a secret; this is where I was going to speak about the difference Lamp could make to the offensive line. Never-the-less they still signed Russell Okung from division rivals the Broncos in free agency. The offensive line may not be significantly better on paper. However, they just need to allow enough time for the Rivers-led fire power to click into action. Here’s hoping.
Defensive pro’s and con’s
The Chargers secondary is the better part of their defense. Casey Hayward, signed before the 2016 season, proved to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league last year. Jason Verrett has the ability to match his colleague, and together they can restrict their opponents passing game. The defensive front seven is where the Chargers are likely to struggle most. PFF ranked them 30th in the league for the upcoming season. This is a concern. However, if we investigate a little closer, there may be factors which mean it isn’t too bad. Consider only the AFC West teams and how the Chargers defensive front will match up to their opponents.
The biggest issue they have is when they play the Raiders. The Oakland offensive line is one of the leagues best. They protect Derek Carr so he can maximise the use of the talent downfield, primarily Cooper and Crabtree; this is a worry for opponents. When playing the Raiders, the Chargers secondary is going to need to have a good day. The Broncos have a poor offensive line and compounding this they needed a battle to be clear about their quarterback. If the Broncos are forced to utilize their running game to a greater extent, CJ Anderson is not the biggest headache a defense could face.
The Chiefs are a solid team with two core dangers in their skill positions. The Chargers defense needs a scheme to manage Tyreek Hill’s electric pace, limiting quarterback Alex Smith to check downs and inside throws. Any defense facing the Chiefs, however, must have a plan for Travis Kelce. He is the best tight end in the game behind Rob Gronkowski, and he hurts defenses single-handed.
I have done this scientifically, kind of. I have predicted all results for the upcoming season, it’s easy to do, and I suggest you have a go when you’ve got a spare half hour. Believing in the Chargers this year is easy. So much so that I have them a game back from the Oakland Raiders and qualifying for the play offs.
2016 Record: 7-9
Predicting a winning season for the Eagles isn’t the same stretch as with the Chargers. Remember though; they are in a division where all their opponents had a winning record last season. While the Giants are my pick for the NFC East, the Cowboys will regress. They have suffered losses from their stellar offensive line of last season, and then there is Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. The Redskins are the wild card in the division. They have lost offensive coordinator Sean McVay to the Rams, and need to hope this doesn’t negatively affect Cousins.
Wide receiver improvement
The obvious flaw in the Eagles play in 2016 was the performance of their wide receivers. Their leading receiver, Jordan Matthews, totaled 804 yards and he was recently traded. This was fewer than Quincy Enunwa, Marqise Lee and also the leading Eagles tight end, Zach Ertz. They didn’t spread the love around either; next on the wider receiver list was Dorial Green-Beckham with 392. That’s right: Dorial Green-Beckham.
The signings of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith will help, and Nelson Agholor is reported to have looked good in pre-season. The options available to second-year quarter back, Carson Wentz, will allow greater diversity in play calling. With support from Wendell Smallwood and LeGarrette Blount and PFF’s number one ranked offensive line, the Eagles are set to blossom.
Improve their record on the road
They were a polarizing team last season. Their 6-2 home record was more than nullified by an anemic 1-7 away from Philadelphia. Their away schedule doesn’t look too easy this year either. They travel to Los Angeles twice where they will expect to beat the Rams at least. Their other road fixtures are in Washington, Kansas, Carolina, Dallas, Seattle and New York to face the Giants. There isn’t one of these games where individually I would be confident of an Eagles victory. I do, however, hope they will be winning 3-4 games on the road adding to 5-6 home wins.
The offensive Line
As aforementioned the Eagles have one of the premier offensive lines in the game. They can create the holes required for their running backs and also give Wentz enough time to find his targets. We should remember that Wentz started his NFL career with 134 passes without an interception. He did go on to throw another 13 in the season, but he proved that he can be accurate. The offensive line has no real weakness, and that is its core strength. And at right tackle, they have Lane Johnson who is one of the best tackles in the game.
The front seven
Not only do the Eagles have an excellent offensive line, they also excel on the other side of the ball. They have the 3rd ranked front seven entering 2017, led by super-stars Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. The Eagles will face some stern tests from offensive lines this season. They have the Cowboys (twice), Raiders, Redskins (twice) and the Panthers, who all possess quality along the offensive front. The Eagles front seven have the ability to restrict the playmakers of each of these teams and get off the field as soon as possible. And they will need to step-up, because the Eagles secondary has been a recent weakness, and will need as much help as possible if the Eagles are going to have a winning season. Ronald Darby should help with this.
They will finish second in the NFC East behind the Giants and challenge with the NFC South runners-up for a playoff spot.
2016 Record: 6-9-1
I was all set to make the Arizona Cardinals my fourth team, but my inner voice warned me off them and onto the Bengals. Consistent playoff wild-card weekend losers, the Bengals form dipped last year, but I predict this is a temporary blip.
Increased options at receiver
The Bengals have pretty-much every type of receiver you want, in they have a dominant WR1 who can compete with the best defenders in the league. First round draft pick John Ross is the speedster who can take the top off a defense, plus his college play suggested safe hands too. Tyler Eifert is a red-zone mismatch and his touchdown production playing with Andy Dalton is superb. They also have solid support from their running backs as both Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon can be a threat in passing downs.
But what about that offensive line?
Yes, the offensive line is a concern. It looks weaker this year than it did last with the loss of Andrew Whitworth (Rams) and Kevin Zeitler (Browns). Risks caused by poor offensive line play can be mitigated by a quick release, and in 2016 Andy Dalton had one of the quicker releases at 2.5 seconds average. If he can bring this down to around the 2.2 – 2.3 range then it can only benefit the Bengals.
Running backs to meet all needs
Alongside the aforementioned Mixon and Bernard, the Bengals also have Jeremy Hill in their backfield. At the NFL level, Mixon is unproven but has showcased his talent during pre-season. Bernard and Hill have both had good careers to date. Neither are the most consistent, but Hill is a goal-line threat, Bernard can be elusive and adding the rookie only adds to the options available for Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese.
Ravens woes and schedule
The Steelers will begin the season as favorites for the AFC North. The other teams Cincinnati will face twice are the seemingly up-and-coming Browns and the offense-ravaged Ravens. I expect they will be confident of getting three wins out of the four games against these teams. They should also be confident against the Colts, Bills, Bears, Vikings, and Lions; and hopeful vs Texans, Broncos and perhaps one of either the Titans and the Jaguars.
They will win between 9 or 10 (or possibly even 11) games and finish runner-up to the Steelers in the AFC North.
2016 Record: 3-13
They have to do it this year, right?
In committing these words to the page, I’m becoming the 460th NFL writer to believe in the Jaguars resurgence over the last few years. There is no law of averages argument coming up. I will simply be looking through the Jaguars offering for 2017 and making logical conclusions. It sounds simple, doesn’t it!
A strengthened defense
Calais Campbell, Barry Church, and A.J. Bouye are all new additions and are starting quality defensive players. Actually, scratch that, Campbell, Church, and Bouye, if the latter continues his 2016 form, are very good starters. Calais Campbell was PFF’s No. 1 available free agent following the franchise tag period. He will strengthen the defensive line, which is required when you face the Titans twice a year. Church and Bouye will join star-in-the-making Jalen Ramsey in the Jaguars’ secondary which is ranked 6th by PFF when projecting the 2017 season. Ramsey was one of the outstanding rookies last season and if he develops in his sophomore year he could be on his way to being one of the premier cornerbacks in the league.
A weaker league
I can see the Texans sliding backwards this year, even with J.J. Watt returning. I am not sold on Lamar Miller, but D’onta Foreman could be an improvement. Deshaun Watson and Tom Savage are upgrades on Brock Osweiler, and Watson is the rookie quarterback many predict will start the most games this season. You must always take into account that rookie status though, not many rookies set the league on fire in their first season.
I rate the Titans this year, and as a result, I have them pegged as favorites for the league with the Jaguars a competitive second. I think both sides will record winning seasons. As for the Colts, they are a worry given all their defensive changes. Luck is the best quarterback in the division, but his ongoing injury is a huge concern. An aging (and Canton bound?) Frank Gore is still their best running back option and T.Y. Hilton needs a lot more help from his fellow wide outs if the Colts passing attack is to benefit properly from the genius of Luck.
Ah, yes, but Blake Bortles…
If Bortles’ continues his play from last season, then all these other pieces may not matter. I have a suspicion that we will see a more productive season out of him this season. It’s not blind faith; I’ll explain.
The Jag’s are used to playing from behind, the natural reaction to this is throwing the ball more. This is where Bortles has both succeeded (2015) and failed (2016). With an improved defense this year I don’t expect the team to fall behind so early / far in as many games. This means they can be a little more conservative with their offensive play calls, and therefore Bortles won’t have the same pressure imposed on him. He must know that this is his final chance to prove he has a future with the Jaguars. Chad Henne will replace him during the season if he fails. If this happens, I still think the Jaguars are good enough to have a winning season.
Plus they have Leonard Fournette to take a far more significant amount of the ball than recent Jaguars running backs have done.
I’m not convinced that Fournette was the best option for the Jaguars at running back. I am in the camp who thinks he was over-drafted, but that doesn’t mean he is going to be a fantasy football flop (I’m not predicting he’ll be a stud either). He should, however, be easily the best option the Jaguars have had since Maurice Jones-Drew was in his pomp.
They won’t win their division (the Titans will) but they will finish with 9-10 wins and narrowly miss out on the play offs.
2016 Record: 6-10
We’re going to finish where we started, with the Carolina Panthers. From 15-1 and a Super Bowl loss to 6-10 and 4th place in the NFC South, a reversal of fortune awaits. Exciting rookies and a fully fit Cam Newton are important to the predicted upturn in Panthers’ form.
Offensive options to confuse
Defensive coordinators facing the Panthers this year have a different question to ask: how are they going to play? In recent years the Panthers have had big, dominant wide receivers who are good at the catch point. A quick guy to break the defenses over the top. The ever reliable Greg Olsen and a quarterback who can hurl a fast ball with the best of them or beat you on his own as a power back. This year a difference awaits us on the horizon. Firstly Curtis Samuel, nominally a wide receiver who is also excellent running back. Secondly Christian McCaffrey a running back in your fantasy drafts who can operate just as efficiently in a passing down. If they can ease the workload of, and shift the attention from, Newton, then anything is possible.
A winning mentality
Although difficult to quantify, the Panthers expect to be a winning team. Before 2016 they won three NFC South titles in a row. During this time the division has strengthened, and it can boast the two most recent NFC champions. ‘Riverboat’ Ron won Super Bowl XX as a player with the Bears and has been AP and PFWA Coach of the Year twice. Cam Newton won the BCS National Championship with Auburn in January 2011 and NFL League MVP in 2015. Thomas Davis is 34 and has recovered from multiple serious injuries while his fellow linebacker, Luke Kuechly is generally regarded as one of the best in the league. In fact, they both are.
Strength in the lines
Both the Panthers’ offensive line and the defensive front seven ranks highly for PFF going into 2017. The offensive line is 12th in their rankings, and they should be good enough to provide sufficient time for their newly-formed explosive offense to explode as expected. The defensive front seven is ranked 4th which is needed in a division with the strongest line up of quarterbacks in the NFL.
I predict the Panthers to finish 3-3 in their division. They have a good chance of beating the 49ers, Bills, Jets. Dolphins, Lions, Bears, and Vikings. This will be enough to see them to a winning record.
The Panthers will win ten games and finish second to the Buccaneers in the NFC South. They will join the Eagles in filling the two wild-card playoff spots.